Remote Personality Profiling: Scraping Biography Off the Web

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Remote Personality Profiling: Scraping Biography Off the Web

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1920)

Scientific observation is never performed just by looking. (Rom Harre, States of Mind, 1983)

There are a number of techniques and approaches to trying to fully understand people: what they are really like, what motivates them, what they will do in the future. One of the best known is Offender or Criminal Profiling. This can take many forms (a clinical, geographic, typological approach) but the primary aim in most cases is to identify (and then detain) a criminal or criminal gangs. There is also Psychobiography, which is more than biography as it attempts to use psychological theories to interpret and explain as well as describe the behaviour of a person (living or dead). It tends to focus on motives and of how particular events shaped people.

There are three aspects to Remote Personality Profiling (RPP) which make it different and more insightful, reliable and accurate.

1 REMOTE: This essentially means trying to understand an individual without being able to interview or test them face-to-face. It is remote in the sense of distance in space and time. This is the problem for a biographer of someone who has died, but are interested almost exclusively in the living.

It means relying on various other sources of information. These may be web-based: electronic or printed. It could mean having audio or video recordings of them, copies of their speeches or writing as well as many published and unpublished accounts of them.

The second way of getting information about people remotely is to interview others who knew or know them well. They may be friends and family, school and university colleagues, workplace individuals or those who know them through religious or leisure groups. What they know and what they are prepared to say is of essence.

There are lots of reasons why it may not be possible to interview a person that one is attempting to profile. Hence the use of remote data.

2 PERSONALITY: This is a shorthand and possibly a misnomer as we are attempting to understand much more than their personality. It is important that we understand a person’s ability, biography, culture of origin, pathology, etc, as well as their personality.

We need to try to understand how the person sees the world: how their life journey has shaped them and the impact of many factors on their development. There are various psychological theories and models that are extremely useful to guide and integrate the information that is important to collect.

3 PROFILING: A profile is a rich and dynamic description of an individual which is necessary in understanding an individual and predicting his/her behaviour. It attempts to fully understand (describe and explain) how an individual has come to be as they are, as well as how, when and what might change in their lives. A profile is always dynamic.


Profiling involves collecting a great deal of information, verifying this and then ’putting it together’ in some meaningful way. There are essentially three ways of doing this:

1 The Typological approach

This usually involves having a set of pre-existing types or categories and trying to see which one the target person best fits. It is attractively simple but tends to neglect too much information and to simplify rather than clarify. People are too easily ’fitted’ into pre-ordained boxes.

2 The Algorithm approach

This method is derived from multivariate statisticians who collect specific data which they ’feed’ into a mathematical model which weights, processes and combines the data in a particular way given the way the model is devised. There is a pre-ordained formula: the sort of thing that actuaries use when making their calculations. Everything depends on the accuracy of the formula, which may not be easily able to cope with the sort of data available about such things as a person’s motivation.

3 The Thematic approach

This involves making a semi-clinical and experimental judgement based on a weighting of the factors. It differs from the algorithmic approach in that the gestalt judgement has to be based on ’clinical’ judgement. Inevitably this requires considerable training in the business to make this both reliable and insightful.


There are six main elements affecting an individual’s attitudes, characteristic behaviours and motivation.

1 Culture and clan: The culture and society into which a person is born and in which they are raised has a profound impact on how they view the world, relate to others and tend to behave in everyday situations.

2 Biography and family: Against the context of culture and clan, there are experiences unique to an individual that are likely to have the greatest impact. Socio-economic background, family and key relationships, and misfortunes, especially in early life, are hugely influential in shaping or dictating life choices and attitudes.

3 Intelligence: Often overlooked or downplayed by assessors, particularly in selection for senior posts, many identify intellect as the most reliable overall predictor of an individual’s performance in a job.

4 Personality: While some people can adapt, personality traits are fairly fixed from late teens and a comprehensive trait assessment is a powerful tool in understanding under what conditions an individual will be at ease and operate most effectively.

5 The dark side: Particularly at senior levels, hitherto masked dark side traits, sometimes called personality disorders and mental health issues, surface with devastating impact. They are remarkably common and early identification can increase the scope to weed out and manage potential problems and derailers.

6 Motivation: This refers to what drives and directs people consciously or unconsciously. It is often something people are not very good at explaining or understanding, though others can see it very clearly.


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